The Cultural Transmission of Motherhood in Europe: A Case Study

Valerie Heffernan, Katie Stone, and Bex Harper

Declining birth rates in the majority of European countries have put motherhood centre stage on the European agenda. With fertility rates now below replacement level in almost all EU member states, policy makers are seeking new ways of understanding demographic change. To date, policies to promote population growth have concentrated on the economic, historical, political and social factors that influence women’s reproductive decisions. What policy makers have failed to take adequate account of is the central role played by culture in the formation, development, and perpetuation of images of motherhood, images that can also profoundly influence women’s practices and refusals of motherhood. Researchers at Maynooth University, led by Dr Valerie Heffernan, Principal Investigator for the Irish Research Council-funded project on 'The Cultural Transmission of Motherhood in Europe', are working on filling this gap by focusing on prevalent cultural images of motherhood.

The Motherhood Project focuses its attention on the situation in contemporary Germany, with an eye to broadening out the investigation to the rest of Europe. Drawing on recent research which indicates that women’s reproductive decisions can be profoundly influenced by dominant discourses of mothering, and that their images of motherhood are often drawn from what they read in newspapers, magazines and novels and what they see on TV and in film, this research project examines the images of mothers presented in contemporary German television, film, popular literature, and the media, and analyses the dominant messages they convey about what it means to be a mother in Germany today.

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